Friday, October 23, 2009

Tour de Here: down by the river

I've been thinking about something the manager of the county food bank said one morning about a year ago.  She'd been listening to me and another volunteer who moved here recently from Seattle, then suddenly burst out,  "I don't understand why anyone would move here.  I mean I grew up here and all my family and my husband and all, so I had to - but why would anybody choose to live here?"

Why anyone would care to live here?

Why wouldn't they?  Not too far from Portland with its museums and library, not too far from Fritz's work.  Within range of the coast.  And all around: the lovely conic snow-topped volcano mountains.  Hills of Doug fir and hawthorne.  Green fields.  Wild foxglove and white daisies. Cows and horses in pastures.  Old barns.  Walkable hills, bikable roads. 

And the town itself?   A main boulevard with little shops and local businesses - ice cream, insurance, eye doctor, Paulson Printing, Richardson Furniture, Harrington Clothes, El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant.  A place with character.

This is a town built on its river.  And best appreciated from the waterside perspective.  Driving on the highway into the upper town, where most of its people live nowdays, does feel like arriving No-Place.  The highway pulls through increasingly densely built-up clumps of building and then there are some traffic lights.  Grocery store, Starbucks, Walmart.  A motel and a few fast food restaurants.  Two gas stations.  And then you're out in the fields and rocky outcroppings above the river again. It wasn't until a friend took us one day on his motorboat up to Portland and back that the town made sense to me with its marina full of ships' masts and a basalt-and-trim-whitewash courthouse queening it over all the lower part of town.

This town needs to be read from the river up.  But even before we realized this, we liked the there-ness here.  We liked the lingering echo of that small-town-America we thought had been buried everywhere by asphalt and strip-malls. Though I admit I was not prepared for some of the rural blight that afflicts most of our nation's small towns these days.

We are, I have been told, the meth capitol of the nation.  Certainly, we see a higher than usual proportion around town of the chemically disabled.  And their kids bear the brunt of their parents' experimentation, coming to school unfed and  unbathed, their baby teeth already marked with drug use in utero, not to mention what teachers call "behaviors." 

There are other downsides.  Now that picking strawberries has been outlawed as "child labor," there aren't strawberry farms around any more.  There aren't a lot of options anywhere for part-time work for teenagers, because those jobs are filled by adults, struggling to keep it together.  There isn't a lot of school support for college-bound students.

Until recently, kids would leave high school and start up the next day logging or working at the paper mill.  It meant kids could stay and raise their own families where they themselves had grown up.  Which is part of what has given this town that feeling of being A Place in Itself, and not just anonymous, interchangeable overnight parking for commuters.  A logging town, a mill town, a river town that has built itself up from the basalt of the cliffs it is built upon.  And has the swank to use neon on its public buildings.

But like the fishery on the coast, the forestry shrunk way back about ten years ago.  Last year the mill closed.  I used to complain when the mill made the air smell of sulfur and rotten cabbage, especially on cold days when the mist rolled in off the river. 

"The smell of money," longtimers told me.  And I've seen some of the social cost now that the mill is closed.  Not just the jobs lost and the families that have had to move away. No more abundance of donated paper in the schools.  No more turkeys donated to the food bank in time for Thanksgiving.  No more new monuments in town, no more plaques at the library where the list of donors starts out with the name of the paper mill.

I was thinking this, my bike leaned up against the stone parapet, overlooking the small riverside park where the city stages Nights on the River: Thursday evening concerts in the summertime.   We've gone, once or twice, biking into town and coasting downhill toward the river, waving to friends and the parents of our children's friends, finding a place to sit on the terraced grass-and-stone amphitheater. 

I remember a pianist with a rich, mellow singing voice.  High school kids all down on the front row together. Family groups and older couples watching from above. And young children off to the side laughing on the slide.  The concerts finish before our long northern summer evening has come to a close and we bike back home in the long light through the street market. 

This is what living in a community should look like.

And now, in autumn, watching the river while I spoon up soup from the thermos - mothers with strollers, children coaxing to stop and play on the slide and climbing structures, dogs and their people striding along the footpath just above the river, I'm asking myself, "Why haven't I done this more frequently?  Why haven't I been doing this always?" -

A glide down to the end of Strand Street reminds me - the road deadends at what used to be the paper mill's sludge ponds, clearer now than I've ever seen them in the decade I've lived here.  And every day this autumn the air has been fresh and clean, blowing in off the river.

I would love to see some new jobs come in - clean jobs that used the intelligence of hands, as well as college degrees, and not just high-tech or phone support, not just Walmart and McDonald's.  Hand-built bikes come to mind.  Michael Curry, i.e. masks and puppets for Broadway's Lion King and for the opening ceremonies of the most recent U.S. winter Olympics, has his design facility almost a stone's throw south of where I'm eating my lunch above the river.

Why anyone would move here.

All this town needs is to wake up and see itself.  It needs its people to slow down enough, to take the time to see what is already here.  The everyday monuments right along the road.

Memories abound of happy days together,
quiet moments, thoughtful times
Always us together,
Gentle, Noble, Beautiful, Loyal till the end
You will always be remembered as My
dearest Closest friend

In Memory of Max

But I don't think my town is the only place that needs a mindfulness turned on it to bring out its waiting virtues.  We have in this country too long thought we could buy a life from Bed, Bath & Beyond.  Tuscan style, French country design, we buy it, forgetting that what makes an Italian or French town so French, so Italian, is that the people there live in their towns. 

Someone wrote in a recent email -
Oh- and thanks for the travel log of your home town. It makes me wonder if I roamed the streets with a camera when I walk if it would give me something to get out of my head with so that I can enjoy the walking and seeing and not be bothered by the ever present, oppressive me-ness of my life.

Well, that's part of my goal in showing you what I see here when I open my eyes. 

When God created the horse, He said
to the magnificent creature: "I have
made thee as no other. All the treasures of
earth lie between thy eyes.  Thou shalt carry
my friend upon thy back.  Thy saddle shall be the
seat of prayers to Me.  And thou fly
without wings, and conquer without any
sword. Oh, horse."

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